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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1867

Senator WILLIAMS (12:32 PM) —I am very pleased to notice that Minister Conroy is present in the chamber. I thought he might have been hiding under a log or something.

We all want faster broadband and good regional services. There is no argument about that, but the questions we have are about Labor’s history on telecom-muni-ca-tions. Last time I spoke on telecommunications I highlighted the issues of the Hawke-Keating government when they did away with the analog mobile phone system, which was a really good system. The clarity was terrific and, living in the regional areas, the reception was great to 30 or 40 kilometres. The analog system was like the EH Holden. The EH Holden was a great Australian-made car. I have several 1964 EH Holdens. But spare parts for the EH Holden became harder and harder to get. It was likewise with the analog system. We saw the demise of the analog system and the introduction of the digital mobile phone system, which, frankly, was just hopeless in regional Australia.

It was up to the coalition, especially my colleagues in the National Party, to push for the CDMA phone system to give us that further coverage. We are just not close to towers in many areas around regional Australia. Then we moved on to the NextG system, which I think is working very well. It is terrific to think that, in my case—I have a broom-stick aerial off my mobile phone—I can drive from areas like Inverell in northern New South Wales and to Adelaide, some 1,800 kilometres away, and not be out of reception for longer than two or three minutes. You go through some very sparse country when you travel from Cobar to Wilcannia to Broken Hill. You do not see a lot of built-up areas in those regions, I can assure you. I think that, overall, the majority of the people are happy with the mobile system. There are certainly black spots and people are frustrated that they still do not have a mobile signal in many areas, especially around the hills and heavily timbered areas, where mobile reception can be hard to get, but in general there has been a huge improvement in mobile telephone reception with literally hundreds and hundreds of towers established, especially over the period of the coalition government with its funding and help with that.

But here we have a $43 billion plan put forward by Senator Conroy and the government. You would not blame us for questioning the whole plan when we look at the government’s history on the rollout of their programs over the last three years. The pink batts program was a disaster and had to be guillotined before any more mistakes were made. The serious issue with that, of course, was the death of four installers, which was a tragedy in itself. But 190 houses also caught fire. It was a system in which people were rorting, gouging, not doing the job properly and not possessed of the professional know-how for installations. It was a way to simply get hold of government money, whether it be taxpayers’ money or borrowed money.

Then we went onto the Building the Education Revolution. It was a $16.2 billion plan and the first buildings that come to mind are the two classrooms that were installed at the Manilla Central School near Tamworth. They were demountables brought in on a truck. It will cost you $1.8 million to build six very good brick veneer houses, but for $1.8 million the Manilla school got two demountable classrooms brought in on a semitrailer—nothing else. How could you waste so much money on two demountable classrooms costing $900,000 each—$1.8 million for two classrooms—when we know that it will cost $1.8 million to build six comfortable brick veneer or perhaps even solid brick four-bed-room homes? We question how the money was spent. I could go on and question the Green Loans scheme, which was another disaster, and now we are faced with this legislation in which the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, and the government are proposing to spend $43 billion on rolling out fibre to the home.

Let us go back to the government’s original plan—$4.7 billion, from memory, for fibre to the node. That was the plan that Minister Conroy was first going to roll out, even to the stage where he did not think about the $30 million spent on a tender for fibre to the node. That was $30 million wasted, down the tube—more money wasted. It was frightening to see, when I checked out the federal government’s website last Friday, that the federal government’s gross debt was $172 billion, having grown more than $10 billion over September. This money has to be paid back with interest, and now we are looking at a $43 billion plan that someone has dreamt up for running fibre to the home through 93 per cent of Australia’s residences and businesses. Of course, the seven per cent missing out, the 1½ million people or more, will be in regional areas.

This plan for fibre to the home is being offered for free. In Armidale, in northern New South Wales—from which I catch a plane frequently as, unfortunately, we no longer have an aerial service to Inverell—it has been offered for free in the last couple of weeks, but people had to opt in. People had to contact NBN Co. and say, ‘Yes, please give me free fibre to my home,’ yet people were not doing that. The local newspaper pleaded: ‘It is free. Please sign up for it. Get it now for free.’ They ran stories saying, ‘You must get on to this now because if you don’t you are going to miss the free boat.’ But people did not sign up for it; NBN Co. had to plead with them to take it up for free.

In Tasmania there was also an opt-in situation. If Tasmanians wanted free fibre to the home they had to contact NBN or the authorities. People did not take it up. Why did people not take it up? Because it was not the biggest issue on their minds. Their attitude was: broadband service, great, but the 100 megs download is not the biggest fish to be fried. So in Tasmania the state government had to change the regulations so that people were automatically hooked up unless they opted out. People were simply not taking up a free fibre-to-the-home offer with a very cheap internet connection on a trial basis, so the government had to act to get people to hook up to it. This is a concern.

If we look at the figures from South Korea and Japan that have had fast broadband and 100 megs downloads for some 10 years, we see that around 30, 35 or 40 per cent of people have hooked up to the fast broadband after 10 years. Most are happy with the 12 to 20 megs download, which is obviously cheaper. The big question is: who wants it, who is going to connect to it and who is going to use it? Where is the business plan? Surely, when you invest in anything you look at a return.

One very good thing about improved broadband services is for medical procedures in regional areas. I will give an example of a person who has been in the bush for most of their life working on a property, living at somewhere like Wilcannia or Tibooburra in far western New South Wales. This person notices a spot on their arm or their face—something I am pretty conscious of. The person thinks about the sun from their younger days and wonders if this might be that accursed cancer known as melanoma. This person goes to the nurse in their small community and the nurse puts the camera on the spot, perhaps rings a retired skin specialist living in Sydney and says, ‘Turn on your computer and please have a look at this spot.’ The retired skin specialist says, ‘Yes, I will do that instantly,’ and perhaps asks the nurse on the telephone to zoom in a bit closer. This is a great thing for regional Australia, but how much download is required? The answer is: four megabytes to run that sort of system. A few weeks ago Telstra had the cameras and the screens in Parliament House and told us that four megabytes is required for those med-ical procedures, not a 100. Telstra’s new wire-less broadband offers 44 meg down-loads. So, with improvements in wireless broadband, we can have those medical procedures carried out right around rural and especially remote Australia, which I think will be excellent. But you do not require 100 megs per second download to carry out those medical procedures via videoconferencing.

The government had much to gloat about in the OECD report, which was released a couple of weeks ago, except when it came to the National Broadband Network. The OECD said, ‘You are going to commit yourself to fibre to the home; what about new technologies in the future?’ We have seen technology advance and change so much over the last 15 to 20 years. Madam Acting Deputy President, if I were talking to you 20 years ago and you had said, ‘It will not be all that long until you will be able to pick up your phone and take a photo of Senator Guy Barnett’—which would have been a thrilling photo of course—‘and send it to your niece in London in a matter of seconds,’ I would have said: ‘Come on! That’s a fairly big exaggeration.’ Of course, that is what you can do today—the technology has advanced enormously, which is a great thing.

When I was in my previous business, I remember that a man came into my shop in a rather angry state saying how things were not up to scratch as far as telecommunications go. I said to him, ‘Well, it would have been great if we had had mobile phones back in the days when our soldiers were at Gallipoli; they could have sent a text message to their mum to say, “Hey, everything’s okay; I am still alive,”’ but they did not, unfortunately. We have advanced so far.

So here is the $43 billion plan. Minister Conroy’s first dream of this program was to get $22 billion from the government and $21 billion from the private sector. I wonder what happened to the $21 billion from the private sector. Why was it not forthcoming? There is a pretty simple answer to that: because they probably would never ever see a decent return on their investment. That was the end of the road for the $21 billion of private money, so now the government is basically forced to foot the whole bill. People often talk about taxpayers’ money but I always refer to it as ‘borrowed’ money, more additions to the $172 billion gross debt we face as I speak. Where is the return on investment? Where is the business plan? First of all, if you were one of the senators sitting on the crossbench and you wanted to sign up to a seven-year confidentiality clause, you might have got a look at it. But then the government said, ‘We’ll sign you up for three years,’ and then it came down to two weeks. How fair dinkum are they when they say to Senator Xenophon and others: ‘We will sign you up to a confidentiality clause that you cannot squeak about and we will show you the business plan’? That is outrageous. Let us see the business plan.

Where is the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into all of this? People like Independent Tony Windsor, who has been a strong supporter of the National Broadband Network, said, ‘No, we do not need a Productivity Commission report,’ and did not vote for it. We wanted a Productivity Commission inquiry into the carbon tax, the very tax about which, prior to the election, our now Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, said, ‘There will be no carbon tax under my leadership.’ The point is that Ms Gillard is no longer the leader. It is the Greens that are leading the country. Their fingerprints are all over every policy coming forward, whether it be same-sex marriage or the carbon tax. It is the Greens that now have control of the government. They are even exerting more pressure with regard to the privatisation issue for the government’s plan later on. The Greens are the big stick here and they now have control of people like Minister Conroy, and I am sure he is very pleased about that. So where is the Productivity Commission’s inquiry? ‘No, it is not necessary.’ It is the biggest infrastructure spend in the nation’s history—$43 billion—but we are told we do not need a Productivity Commission inquiry into it to see what the cost-benefit is for all Australians.

Let us just do some quick figures. Let us say that it comes out at $40 billion—and I know that Minister Conroy is a very good man on figures when it comes to adding up debt. We would need a gross return of, say, $5 billion a year. On $40 billion that is a 12 per cent return. With a gross return of $5 billion you would need five million people hooked up to it at $1,000 per year. I do not know how many houses there are and Australian businesses—perhaps 12 million—so we would have to look at a 40 to 50 per cent take-up rate on the 100 megs download, on the big-picture one. We are still not too sure what it is going to cost. But a $5 billion gross return is $1,000, if you can get that take-up, then add on the retailers supplies and you would be looking at $1,500 a year per household. Who is going to do it? Very few, in my opinion. So what is the take-up? What does the government expect to have? Some figures thrown around show 90 per cent. You would have to bribe everyone to get it out to 90 per cent.

The point I make is this: where is the cost-benefit analysis? We are spending $43 billion. People are saying to me in regional Australia, ‘What about our roads?’ The rain of late has been terrific, and I do hope it stops for the next few weeks so we can get the harvest in; it is a real threat to the magnificent crops we have seen in many areas, especially in New South Wales. But it is doing an enormous amount of damage to the roads. What about our roads? What about our hospitals? What about our aged-care facilities? What about our rail system? I am sure that the Melbourne to Brisbane train line would not be in the interests of people like Minister Conroy because the more truckies are on the road, the more truck drivers there are in the union—the Transport Workers Union. So perhaps there will be more supply there. I remind the minister about the blue card issue that was put forward in the Fair Work Bill amendments, where they wanted all the truckies to sign up to the blue card, which could be printed only by BLUECARD, based in Western Australia.

Senator Conroy —Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order about relevance. I am loath to interrupt this stream of consciousness but I know that, deep down, Senator Williams supports this bill. Surely it can’t be too hard to speak for 20 minutes against the bill. I know he actually supports it and really wants this to happen but there is the question of relevance—truckies, blue cards and the Fair Work Bill is straying a little widely.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Thank you, Minister. There is no point of order. As senators know, there is a wide range of debate in this place.

Senator WILLIAMS —Exactly. That is a case of the pot calling the kettle black when it comes to the point of relevance. Recalling question time over the last couple of years, I do not think Senator Conroy has ever directly answered a question that has been asked of him. Now he is here with a saintly halo around his head saying, ‘You must be relevant.’ There are wide terms of reference in this debate, as you pointed out, Madam Acting Deputy President. I will continue.

The point I make is: with this $43 billion spend, where is the business plan? That has been hidden away. It was hidden to give to some if they signed up to confidentiality. Where is the Productivity Commission’s cost-benefit analysis? No, that is not forthcoming. People are simply being hoodwinked into signing onto it, as they have had to do in Tasmania with the opt-in, opt-out changes. People in Armidale in northern New South Wales have been begged to hook up to it, as the stories in the paper show. Hence the thing I say is that we can do a lot better with this sort of money and still have good broadband services. We can still carry out those medical procedures, we know, with four megs of download, not 100. Telstra has seen it. The point is: with the waste of money on top of this debt, when are we ever going to pay it back?